Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Day They Stopped The Sky From Falling

As probably everybody knows by now, a terrorist plot to destroy as many as 10 planes flying from England to the US on August 16th was foiled by British officials this week.  Dozens of suspects have been (and are still being) arrested, security has been seriously ramped up on both sides of the Atlantic, and the UK is at its highest terror alert level. (We are at Code Orange, thankfully, unless you count commercial flights.)

Aside from obviously preventing terror and death to thousands of innocent people, what did catching these guys accomplish?  For starters, it reminded everyone what we've been fighting against for the last five years.  I say "what" instead of "who" because Terror, though a great adversary indeed, lacks a singular face.  We have been fighting everyone, and yet no one, ever since the day the Twin Towers collapsed.  It's human nature to need more clear definitions of our foes, whether by marking boundaries on a map or by targeting specific people.  At this point, I believe this is the reason why we went to war in Iraq; we saw a suspicious character in charge of borders and a government, and we leapt at the chance to make a pre-emptive strike.  Saddam Hussein ended up not having the WMDs, despite his non-cooperation with UN weapons inspectors and persistent bluffing.  On the bright side, we toppled an incredibly corrupt dictator; on the darker side, we jumped the gun.  Many will cite oil, globalization, and personal vendettas as our reasons for going to Iraq, but not I.  For better or for worse, human nature was the cause.

We know that it's easy to target another country in a faceless war, but targeting other people may be a simpler task.  Osama bin Laden has topped the FBI's Most Wanted list for a very long time now.  That much makes sense; he's the head of Al-Qaeda and could only be more responsible for 9/11 if he had been flying one of the hijacked airliners himself.  However, the vast majority of our opponents are Arabic and Muslims, and that's led to a lot of questions about racial/religious profiling.  These questions were given new breath as arrest reports came in this week showing most suspects to be British citizens of Pakistani descent.  Is it right to tie a group of people together on any occasion?  If you've had enough "diversity training", the automatic answer is no.  But if you know that almost all of your opponents come out of a specific grouping, it's hard for you to totally resist when you consider the time (and potentially lives) saved looking for the enemy.  It's almost like hearing of an impending Viking attack and then not bothering to stop the bearded guy with the horned helmet that's hanging around near your village.  That said, I'm still disgusted when I hear about the innocent Arabs and Muslims attacked by their fellow Americans after 9/11 happened.  This is the darkest side of human nature, and when you stare it in the face, it's easy to understand why people still get upset over profiling regardless of who we're fighting.  Yet maybe, to the smallest extent humanly possible, such profiling helps keep us safe.

One unexpected positive to all of this is that all those hare-brained 9/11 conspiracy theories might finally kick the bucket.  Vanity Fair had just released an exclusive report detailing panicked reactions within NORAD as the 2001 attacks were happening, complete with voice recordings. Yet as recently as Monday, MSNBC was airing a Scripps Howard national survey in which 36 percent considered the possibility of a conspiracy "very" or "somewhat" likely.  Never mind that the figure was lower than those who believed in a Kennedy conspiracy (40 percent) and in withheld proof of alien life (38 percent), which is really kind of sad.  What got less press than the round number itself was who were more likely to believe in a 9/11 conspiracy: minorities, people with no college education, Democrats, and people who use the Internet but do not regularly read newspapers or listen to the radio.  And anyone is surprised?  To add to the irony, pro-conspiracy protesters from 911Courage.org were busily passing out leaflets at theatres when the Oliver Stone movie World Trade Center released on Wednesday.  Just afterwards, the British stopped the sky from falling.  For once, I think it's safe to say that this was entirely coincidental.

When it comes right down to it, the only drawback to being reminded that the threat is real - and that those seemingly superficial terror alert levels really do mean something - is the gravity of the reminder.  We are at war with an enemy without borders, without fear of death, and without remorse.  Al-Qaeda appears to be behind this latest effort, which recalls a name we had thought to be a shadow of its former self.  And judging from the simple efficiency of the liquid explosive-planting strategy the terrorists had concocted, they are more clever than any of us would have wanted to believe.  The phrase "fear-mongering" has previously been directed at those who would remind us of these simple facts.  May that phrase never be applied again except to our enemies, the real fear-mongers: the terrorists.

[A side note: If you didn't catch it, check the URL on the first link in this article.  Yes, that is the most bizarre location for a Seinfeld reference that I have ever seen...but it's great.  - Ed.]

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